Me and John Kennedy Toole

John Kennedy Toole took his life in 1969

I have been feeling like John Kennedy Toole lately, at least how I imagine he must have felt before he killed himself. Toole is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Confederacy of Dunces. I admit I only got a third way through his book before giving up. Not because it wasn’t any good, but because his life story hit too close to home. Toole tried numerous times to get his novel published, was rejected for years, and finally cashed in his chips. If not for the tireless effort and faith of his mother, who eventually convinced an author to read and promote his book to publishers, I would not be writing about Toole today.

Up until 2004, from age 6 to 29, I was assured, confident. Some people, especially on the Internet, called me egotistical. But it wasn’t like I had no reason to be. Every teacher treated me like a prodigy, like a sure thing. Whoever got the chance to read my fiction; family, fellow students, Fanfic fans, etc., had nothing but good things to say. Then ’04 happened, and my world fell apart. Everything I knew to be true suddenly changed. It’s like the ground fell from under me and I’ve been falling into a dark abyss of despair ever since. My wife often remarks how much I’ve changed, how I am not the same person, that I lost the spark that captured her heart.

For the past decade, I have had my share of ups and downs, but the downs seem more frequent and weigh more heavily on me. I sometimes feel that wanting to be a writer was a mistake. What once brought me joy and escape is now the source of endless grief. I worry what something like this does to my work. How can I write well if the result is always pain? At some point, a Pavlovian reflex is bound to kick in. Then again, a quick search of famous writers brings up many stories similar to mine. Toole fought with depression and lost. Robert Howard also did battle with despair, but unlike Conan, the hero he created, he was defeated and took his own life. Even J.K. Rowling fought with depression, though she somehow managed to win against her dementors.

You could call me the hero of my own story, on a road to becoming an author. But this road is fraught  with rejection letters, the neglect of family and friends, and the continued indifference of the world around me. Apathy bores into my soul continually, making me feel apathetic toward other people. I find myself hating everyone who refuses to acknowledge my work. I find myself keeping my writing a secret from coworkers and friends, lest I give them an opportunity to ignore it, like so many have. The worst part is that there seems to be no end in sight—no shining light, no beacon, for me to follow. I must rely on my own faith, my own waning confidence; I must believe when there is no reason to believe. Every word of encouragement helps—it does help—but it’s so very little, drops of water to a man dying of thirst.

Two years ago, before my thirty-sixth birthday, I didn’t necessarily plan on suicide, but what scared me were thoughts of it. Death no longer seemed frightening or terrible to me, but a release, an escape from stress, and from the ongoing pain of rejection and neglect. My biggest problem is a sense of being a fish-out-of-water. I manage a restaurant, only because my father planned my life and my siblings’ lives from birth. My ultimate regret is not having had the courage to tell him no. I was, quite frankly, afraid to lose his love and respect. The restaurant business, after all, was all that ever mattered to him. More than that, I was afraid to lose the certainty of, what I thought, was financial security. I wish I had escaped when I could have, when I did not have a wife and children. I could have gone to New York to rub elbows with agents and writers; I could have at least been an editor at a newspaper or an English teacher. Instead, I spend late nights taking pizza orders, worrying about paying the seemingly infinite expenses the restaurant continues to incur, fearing I’ll end up like my father, eighty years old and doing the same damn thing I am doing now.  The restaurant business is hard, one of the hardest jobs, but it’s the fish-out-of-water feeling that kills me. I simply do not belong there. It isn’t me. It never was and never will be. Customers ask for the manager, and even after twenty years, I feel like a liar when I say I am the guy they are looking for. But for the sake of my family, I cannot escape this hell. It would be selfish to shut the place down and hope for the best. It would be selfish of me, also, to take the suicide route.

I work a lot less now and that helps a little. I have more time to focus on writing. But it’s still a battle to look for faith, to search for reasons to believe, to drag myself to a bookstore or a coffee shop to write or edit. It’s a battle to look for encouragement on Facebook, in my e-mail, or in the comments section below, when there almost never is any.

I am utterly alone.

But I have a plan in place. I have a third draft of Ages of Aenya to get through, then another book to write, The Princess of Aenya. By age 40, I hope to have an agent at least. If not, I feel that I have to have another avenue to take. Self-publication is still an ugly word. It sounds like failure, like desperation. I tried it before with disastrous results. But at least I had something to show for my life’s effort, something to market, something to give to friends and family. If I do it again, it will be different, an all out assault on the public. Alexey Lipatov, my amazing Ukrainian artist, is already working on an amazing book cover, to be used on this blog for now, but later, who knows? I’ll hit every bookstore, reading festival, and library in the nation. I’ll buy advertising on Facebook and other literary sites. It worked for Michael Sullivan and Christopher Paolini, so why not? A plan is something, is hope, is a reason not to cash it all in.

My birthday is this month. I will be 38. I will have been writing for thirty-two years. From age six. What I would like for my birthday is hope, because, quite frankly, I do not want to end up like John Kennedy Toole.  

3 thoughts on “Me and John Kennedy Toole

  1. Hope is taking a little longer to get to you but there is always HOPE .You are an excellent writer,your work is amazing if only a publishing company or an agent took few seconds of their busy schedule to read your work they will be blown away…Just be patient…
    Self publishing is another way to do it ,I think in few years publishers and agents will be extinct ,so why not.
    Just remember that I love you very much and whatever you decide I will be by your side.

    p.s :hang in there because we all love you very much

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  2. Thank you, Anonymous (I think I know who you are). I just looked at this post today and thought, “Damn, what a downer. Who'd want to read that?” The Internet is rife with sad stories and I hate to add one more to it. After all, “Ages of Aenya” is the story of three people who lose hope, fight for a better future, and succeed. John Kennedy Toole died because he quit. He also had only one book under his belt. I intend to keep churning out stories and novels for decades to come. If agents don't find AoA appealing, they may fall for “The Princess of Aenya”. You made me laugh when you said agents and publishers will become extinct. It's certainly possible. The truth is, they need us a lot more than we need them. A novel without a publisher is still a novel, but a publisher with nothing to publish is nothing. Maybe with the advent of e-books, we will enter an age where there are no longer successes like “50 Shades of Grey” that sell millions of copies. Maybe story telling will go back to its roots, spreading from person to person, among smaller, like-minded people; and that's A-OK with me. Even in my darkest moments of doubt, I know that “Ages of Aenya” is a superior novel to most, even certain acclaimed books I have reviewed on my site. Agents and publishers have set themselves up as the Gate Keepers of Story, but the truth is they are just salesmen, and are often not qualified to judge the merits of fiction. Their ultimate goal is $$$, whereas mine is making something of true worth, something that will stand the test of time.

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  3. i feel like that no one should have do this alone and i know that feel like to be alone it is scary and very dark place to be in with little of hope but i outgrowing that now and i wanted to tell you that you are not alone that at all my friend i only can wish you good luck and because of you inspired me to look up on more info about the naturist and i love your work ages of aenya it is awesome to see that naked hero or heroine can kick butt. P.S. Nick Don't ever give up and i will support you man !

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